Tag Archives: Breaking Bad

Ranking the Shows I Watch – 2014 Edition: The Outcasts

14 Jan

Breaking Bad

It’s time for an annual beginning-of-the-year tradition over here at Drug of the Nation, the ranking of the shows I’ve watched during the previous year. This is my fourth annual ranking, and I’ll repeat the caveat I placed atop last year’s ranking introduction:

Because the TV season is no longer the fall-to-spring trajectory that it used to be, I arbitrarily rank things on a calendar basis, and that leads to strange situations where I’m occasionally ranking the end of one season and the beginning of the next season in the same ranking. It’s strange, and not ideal, but I have to pick some point in the year to do the rankings, so I’ll roll with the punches and mention within the article if there was a significant change in quality one way or the other between the end and beginning of seasons covered in the same year.

I’m only ranking shows I watched all of or just about all of the episodes that aired last year; if I’m just two or three behind I’ll rank it, but if I’ve only seen two or three, I won’t. I’m ranking three episode mini-British seasons but not shows with one-off specials (Black Mirror’s Christmas special is the most notable example this year) . These rules are arbitrary, admittedly, but any rules would be. No daily variety programs like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are eligible either.

The rankings this year were incredibly difficult, and a generally weak fall slate of TV shows had me forgetting just what an utterly strong year on the whole 2014 had been for television. I was forced to put shows I liked a lot towards the bottom of these rankings, and unlike previous years, there are just about no shows on this list that I’m one bad episode away from stopping, or that I’m just stringing out due to past loyalty until they finish. It’s absolutely brutal, and although I was forced to make tough choices, that doesn’t mean I don’t genuinely enjoy just about every show on this list. TV is that good, folks.

We start, as last year, with the shows that made last year’s list but didn’t make this year’s for one reason of another. This year these are almost entirely because they ended or didn’t air in the calendar year, so I’ll just run through them quickly, with some additional notes about the few that didn’t fall off due to simply not airing last year. This year I’m going to additionally throw in where a show ranked last year for context.

Here’s a quick link to last year’s final ranking as well. Now, on to the outcasts…

Breaking Bad – 2013: 1

Treme – 2013: 4

Eagleheart – Last year: 6

30 Rock – Last year: 10

Venture Bros. – 2013: 12

Top of the Lake – 2013: 15

Arrested Development – 2013: 17

Childrens Hospital – 2013: 21

Broadchurch – 2013: 23

Happy Endings – 2013: 24

NTSF: SD: SUV – 2013: 31

Black Mirror – 2013: 36

Family Tree  2013: 37

Siberia – 2013: 38

Luther – 2013: 45

The Office – 2013: 46

Dexter – 2013: 48

Enlightened – 2013: 6.5 (Initially, an embarrassingly mistaken omission)

Ben and Kate – 2013: 23.5 (Initially, an embarrassingly mistaken omission)

Take a deep breath. All of these shows did not air in 2014, so that’s the simple explanation why they’re not on the list. Many of these shows ended, Top of the Lake was a miniseries, several have extended offseasons and will be back in 2015 or later, and a couple are in extended hiatus, waiting to see whether they will return or not (looking at you, NTSF: SD: SUV). Easy enough.

Homeland – 2013: 41

Homeland

After a season and a half of utter frustration with the show’s inconsistency at best, and downright lousy and lazy writing at worst, I cut the cord, deciding not to watch the fourth season after a third season that really was not a very good season of television. People have told me the fourth season is better, and if a critical consensus emerges I’ll consider coming back, but I’m not that close to it. I got so sick of the show and Carrie and Brody in particular; if I had cut out earlier, I might have been more easily convinced to come back. It’ll always have an absolutely all-time first season, and is worthy fo remembering just for that, reminiscent of an athlete like Mark Fidrych who blows away the league in his first season only to never do anywhere close to the same again.

Under the Dome – 2013: 47

 

Under the Dome

Oof. Under the Dome’s first season makes the third season of Homeland look like the fourth season of Breaking Bad. It’s still stunning to me that I made it almost to the end of the first season (I never actually watched the season finale; either with only one left, I couldn’t bring myself to). The plot was incredibly stupid, the acting was generally pretty bad, and the characters were horrible. It’s hard to imagine a time when it could have been decent, but alas, a sneakily bad show is bound to end up getting watched sometimes when you watch so many shows.

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Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2013 Edition: 4-1

14 Feb

Here we are, the final four. Two returnees from last  year’s top four, and two new entrants. All four hour longs. Let’s do it. 4-1.

4. Treme

Let the trombones play

David Simon’s post-Wire paean to post-Katrina New Orleans and the people who live there isn’t The Wire, and I think that’s hurt it in the minds of a lot of people. Tons and tons and tons of people who loved The Wire, many of whom came to The Wire late, refuse to even give Treme a chance. I don’t get it. Someone makes a show that you consider great, and you’re unwilling to even make an effort to watch the first couple of episodes of his next show, especially when it’s critically acclaimed. Well, me telling you to watch it now probably won’t help, but I’ll do it anyway. Treme is sadly over before it’s time, but the final season continued doing everything Treme does so well. While The Wire feels like a story where characters take two steps forward, followed by three steps back, Treme is a little more optimistic; characters take two steps back and three steps forward. There’s plenty of being beaten down by the system, but it turns out David Simon can do hopeful as well as depressing. No one constructs shows that feel more like real life than David Simon, no one constructs more full and inhabited worlds, and no one makes characters that are easier to empathize with and emotions that feel entirely earned. Basically, even though the show is just about people living there lives, there’s really nothing else on TV like it and probably won’t be until the next David Simon show crops up.

3. Rectify

Rectify

The final new spring 2013 drama, three of which made it into the top 10 (what a freshmen class!). Unlike Hannibal or The Americans, Rectify had no problem with originality; I can’t think of any show that was particularly similar to Rectify, in terms of premise and plot. A death row inmate is exonerated after 20 years in prison thanks to DNA evidence, and he tries to fit back in to the real world in a small Georgia town that still believes strongly in his guilt. To say it’s deliberately paced would be an understatement; it makes the early True Detective episodes seem like 24 in comparison. It’s beautiful though, thoughtful, and heartrending. Instead of the deliberate pace being a drain, it’s actually a boon, and the show takes its time to linger and savor; the same way time moves slowly for Daniel, the former inmate, for whom each regular every day experience is new again after 20 years away. Nobody knows how to respond to Daniel; as difficult as it is for him to engage with his family, it’s equally difficult for them to reengage with him. The final scene of the season may have been the most emotional moment I saw watching TV in the entirety of last year.

2. Game of Thrones

In the game of thrones, you win or you die

It’s hard to write these capsules without being a little bit spoil-y but I’ve mostly tried to avoid delivering huge spoilers and I’ll continue to do so here. But I will say no show on TV delivers more shocking moments and huge twists which entirely change the direction of the plot more than Game of Thrones, sometimes turning the entire show on its head. If it was just about plot and aesthetics, Game of Thrones would already be entertaining and a must-watch but there’s so much more. Series author George R.R. Martin, and the writers who translate his work, DB Weiss and David Beinoff, have a talent for creating relatable motivation for almost every character, and making some of the most instantly hatable characters understandable if not likeable. In a world threatened by desperate winter conditions and external threats, Game of Thrones constantly reckons with the nature of power; what are the rules, what are the rights, and what are the responsibilities. The wealthy fight over a throne while the poor struggle merely to survive. Like most great shows, fans can have polarizing opinions about many of the characters and all have credible arguments.

1. Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad, bitch

Well, one last time. Breaking Bad delivered a final season and a finale surely to be considered one of the greatest of all time. Even if not every single moment worked, Breaking Bad simply did so much in eight episodes that the success percentage was still absurdly high, and even the very few decisions I disagreed with, I was able to understand the reasoning behind. Breaking Bad told us right from episode one of the final season that they were done playing it slow and safe, as Walt was on the move after confronting Hank. From there it was a non-stop episode to episode roller coaster ride, which led to one of the rare times where I really felt like I couldn’t wait another week for the next episode, although if each episode had come any faster I might have had a heart attack. The last season was so creative, so much happened, the drama was on such high alert; Breaking Bad went for it in a huge way and won. There are so many many riveting and memorable scenes that there are too many to name, but his phone call with Skyler was maybe the emotional high point of the season, while Ozymandias may go down as one of the best episodes of television of all time. One last salute, Breaking Bad, before I won’t be able to rank you anymore. This is how memorable final seasons are done.

TV’s Golden Age Not Necessarily Over Just Yet

8 Nov

The Four PIllars

Andy Greenwald wrote an article on Grantland which probably wasn’t intended to be trolling, but it came off that way to me, and I felt the need to refute it, particularly because people constantly make arguments like this, if not as specific as this in particular. His argument in short is that television’s “Golden Age” is over. I’m very skeptical of the concept of a “Golden Ages” in general; it reeks of nostalgia for times that weren’t necessarily any better or worse than any other, but seem that way in memory, but I’ll follow along. I willing to accept in principle that certain eras aren’t necessarily as good as others, and that all seasons of television are not equal. However, I think both that his argument in broad strokes is wrong and that the claims he makes to get there are wrong a swell. I’ll break it down in further depth below, but quickly, the biggest issue is that his judgment of the entire previous golden era is particularly rendered less valuable because he’s only judging by using the shows at the very top. He then goes out to knock the “medium-level” shows he calls them in this era, without naming the examples of medium level shows that made the Golden Age great.

He uses what I like to call, or will probably start calling after this, the Four Pillars of TV Greatness (TM). These four are in order of airing: The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad. They’re four undeniable great shows, and if you asked for the greatest dramas of all time, there’s a better than even chance they’d finish as the top four of any poll of enough critics or knowledgeable TV viewers. He talks about a Golden Age, but to be clear, he’s talking about these four shows.  He speaks as if he means to cover a greater swath, as if those four just provided cover and inspiration for a flourishing run of good-but-not-as-good shows beneath their wings, but not a single other show is named after the those four, and while there are others that could easily qualify (Deadwood and Six Feet Under, at the least), I think it’s important to mention that these are the ONLY FOUR he mentions to represent what he describes as the Golden Age.

Greenwald then goes off and reels off several current shows that don’t meet his standard for Golden Age inclusion, whether because they’re simply not as good (Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead, and Homeland, and outside of Homeland’s legitimately brilliant world-class first season, you’ll get no argument there from me) or much more strangely because they are great but they’re genre show, in the case of Game of Thrones (and to a lesser extent Orphan Black), which somehow don’t qualify as Golden Age-worthy because they contribute to other negative trends in television, regardless of their own quality.

The show he most associates with this gilded age of television is The Walking Dead, which he backhandedly notes that even though he’s not a fan, he acknowledges it’s the most important and influential show of the past five years. Without speaking on the quality of the show, on which I stand somewhere in the middle, I disagree strongly with his assertion. While that same statement may yet be true in five years, it really isn’t; Walking Dead’s influence is only beginning to be felt as we still wade our way out of the Age of the Antihero, which still, though waning, dominates television (three of the Four Pillars are antihero shows – The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, along with Boardwalk Empire, Justified, House of Cards, Sons of Anarchy, and plenty of lesser fare). Honestly, whether true or not, this is really off-topic from the central argument so we’ll move back in that direction.

Greenwald goes on to talk about how networks aren’t taking chances anymore, and that’s surely true, but that was also very much true five or ten years ago. None of the Four Pillars were network shows. Four shows got through the cracks and struck gold. He claims it’s systematic failure that as many quality shows aren’t coming through the pipeline, but I’d claim it’s just odds and not enough time.

Let’s not forget as well that one of the Four Pillars is still on, with two seasons to go, and one ended a mere month and a half ago. Game of Thrones is an admittedly great show, and I’m not sure why it’s a knock that it’s a genre show or that it’s based on source material, especially just because in influences other less good shows (first, something every new and interesting show does, second – is it a knock on Pearl Jam that so many lousy bands were influenced by it?). Shows come in waves, and influence of the biggest and best play a large part, for better or worse. Mad Men was very much influenced by The Sopranos. Greenwald complains about a prestige mad libs, and he’s by no means incorrect, but that’s also exactly what Mad Men was. You can give Mad Men credit for inventing that formula, but as mentioned, it stole plenty from The Sopranos.

Logical complaints aside, I’d argue that he’s not looking closely enough to find the good stuff. Last Spring alone saw the debut of four new dramas, each with the potential to be great, and although the odds are against any of them becoming an all-time great, that’s true for any show, and promise is really all you can ask for.

Rectify, the best, airs on Sundance channel, and stands in particular contradiction to Greenwald’s claims as it doesn’t fit into any of the boxes Greenwald is complaining about. Rectify is about a man exonerated from death row after twenty years imprisoned back into the small Georgia town in which he grew up. It’s a small show in the way Game of Thrones and Walking Dead are big, and it’s exceptionally, moving, human, beautiful and heartbreaking in different degrees.

The Americans admittedly kind of fits Greenwald’s prestige formula, but it transcends it, and even Greenwald acknowledging The Americans as the best new series of last year.

Orphan Black, Greenwald already acknowledged as well as an excellent show, and, though it’s a genre show, it certainly doesn’t fit into either the prestige or the bigger is better formula.

Hannibal, admittedly, it less new and interesting than the other three, and probably will end up as good and not great, but it’s especially notable for its gorgeous cinematography and its compelling psychological battling between protagonists Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter which elevate a cop show above the norm.

Remember, if we’re to match his Golden Age, we only need four. My point is not that these four shows are great and replacements for the Four Pillars, but that if even one of them can become great, than really all we need is one new great show each year. I could name lots of good but flawed shows a la Boardwalk Empire from the Golden Age – Lost, Alias, The West Wing, True Blood, 24, and more but it doesn’t matter, because there were some great ones. Now, some people may like some of the good ones better than others, but that’s always the case. Additionally, people will and have always copied successful shows. Lost spawned a thousand attempts at supernatural mystery shows, not one of which has really become successful (Heroes was the closest) and The Sopranos has directly led to Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, and less directly many others.

There’s no reason to believe that the Golden Age is over because there are a lot of new bad and new mediocre shows. There are always a lot of new bad and new mediocre shows. All there have to be is a couple great ones. There are, and there’s no systematic reason that a few more won’t appear in the coming years.

In Defense of Walter White (Kind Of)

4 Oct

Walter White / Heisenberg

I’ll have my belated post about the finale and the final season soon enough but here I’m going to combine a couple of other Breaking Bad-related topics I’ve been thinking about into one entry.  Bear with me.  I want to address two separate issues here. First, I want to touch on the is-Walt-evil debate, and second, after hopefully I’ve least convinced you I’m not one of those terrible Walt apologists everyone keeps complaining about, I want to explain the aspects of Walt that I respect, in spite of the more obvious aspects that I don’t.

Walter White is definitely a bad guy, not in the sense of villain or antagonist, but in the sense of the moral antecedent to good.  He does things throughout the show that are bad things by just about all but the most relativist standard.  If I had to choose, the worst was poisoning a child, but of course it’s silly to choose.  He’s done bad shit, There’s no doubting that, and there’s no getting around.  Is he evil though?

The definition of evil is obviously largely a matter of semantics (don’t worry, I’m not going to bust out a whole Websters-defines-evil-as here).  Still to me, evil is such a damning word that to use it when it’s not warranted is to lessen Its power. Some people throw about the word evil while talking about Walter White in ways that I I think undermine what evil truly is.

Many people, people I know, and people who seriously care about television consider Walter White evil.  Walter White, the Onion AV Club’s Todd VanDerWerff describes Walter White, in an article about good and evil in Breaking Bad as a “very evil man.”

I don’t see it.  Part of this is semantics. In my admittedly stiff definition evil consists of causing harm for absolutely no reason. Walt commits several horrific acts during the course of Breaking Bad, but he never commits the act because he enjoys it or because it’s fun or because people should just die. Every horrific act has internal logic behind it. Even the poisoning of Brock was done for a reason, as it started the events in motion which led to the death of Gus Fring. Fring’s eventual demise likely would never have happened without Brock’s poisoning. It doesn’t make Walt’s act any less vile or wrong, but it does make him not necessarily evil for doing it.

I am currently reading the excellent “The Storm of War” by Andrew Roberts about World War II.  I read chapters about the holocaust and the no less despicable Japanese brutality that occurred in the Eastern war.  I’ve read these stories time and again, but the enormity of the acts never fails to strike me emotionally every time I do.  The deliberate killing of people because you don’t like them.  That’s fucking evil.  Killing people because they pose a threat to your criminal empire?  It’s terrible, it’s morally wrong, and it’s criminal. But it isn’t evil to me.  I admit I’m cheating here by using Nazism as a counter-example, which is just about as evil as evil gets; but the point stands.

Still, let’s move on from the extremes and the semantics, VanDerWerff compares Walter White unfavorably evil-wise to Tony Soprano.  I’d list out the terrible acts both have committed and try to compare and contrast but that’s really beyond the point, and his argument is admittedly less about the acts each of the characters commit than how they are viewed in the context of the show. It’s an intelligently written and worthwhile piece but it’s far too extreme in its reading of Breaking Bad. More than that, it shortchanges Breaking Bad.  There’s an internal logic to almost everything that Walt does that we can follow along with even when we don’t agree with him.  We know why he’s doing it, or at least why he thinks he’s doing it.  The beauty of the show is that each act takes him a little farther from home, moving him away from a moral compass a little more, but because it’s step-by-step, it seems to make a little bit of sense each time.

The genius of Breaking Bad is more than this though. Mr. Chips to Scarface, is the line Vince Gilligan has used to describe his goal for Breaking Bad from day one, and the show was almost there by the start of the final season. Walt was finally going to turn on the only couple of beliefs he had ever claimed to really care about.  Except he doesn’t and that’s part of what makes all the internally consistent but externally terrible choices he made over the past few seasons really hold up in hindsight.

Walt’s actions led to Hank’s death but after events in the final season there’s no question he actually cares about Hank. Walt may not have acted like he cared but he made several decisions in the final season which showed he did.  He actually cared about Jesse as well.  Their relationship may have gone to shit eventually and Walt often didn’t act in Jesse’s best interest, but if you really don’t think Jesse meant anything to Walt you weren’t watching the same show.  Walt has some tiny, little semblance of a moral compass.  It’s broken and perverse but Walt did have something he believed in, something he cared about, even when he didn’t actually act in the way that bettered that belief, and that adds a dimension to the show that VanDerWerff shortchanges.

I’m not a Walt apologist.  He’s a bad dude.  He makes many, many bad decisions, and he absolutely deserved everything that came to him.  He’s committed many crimes and some unforgivable acts. Still, I declaring him out and out evil lacks the nuance with which Vince Gilligan and his writers due such a brilliant job of imbuing Breaking Bad.

Okay, second half where I talk about what I admire about Walter White.  This is a vastly more polarizing viewpoint, I think, and I hope I’ve convinced you that I’m not a total Walt is number one awesome badass supporter to follow along.

Here’s what I actually admire about Walter White.  I’ll again repeat how terrible a person he’s been to Jesse and his family, and how many morally repulsive and criminal acts he’s committed along the way as I disclaimer to my not thinking Walt is the coolest drug lord eva.  Moving forward.

Over the course of the series, Walter White makes something out of himself.  What he achieves is certainly a sordid twist on the American Dream, but it’s not that hard to see the dream in there.  As a man, at a time of desperation, beaten down at age 50, having learned he has a deadly disease, it would be easy to pack it in.  Instead, largely through his own ingenuity, ambition, and genius, he finds a market with an opening, creates a product that’s vastly superior to whatever’s available currently and slowly begins to take over levels of distribution through vertical integration.  Is it an illegal product, a highly addictive substance.  But essentially it’s still a American definition of economic success, capitalism 101.

Walter White doesn’t have a gift.  He wasn’t born with this.  He’s smart, but he could never figure out how to use his particular abilities, and the one time he did, ended up not working out.  He settled into a groove, and that was fine.  He lived a satisfying life.  But he, in a way that I think is very relatable, craved something more.  He felt like he had never really done all he could with his skills, achieved his potential. While most people might have that feeling, he actually went out and did something about it.

I understand this is maybe an extreme way to feel. Walt clearly hurt a lot of people in his path, and it hasn’t been smooth, easy, or legitimate.  But Walter White, at the same time he was doing all these awful things, started showing off an array of skills that I wish I had, albeit it not to use the same way.  The confidence, the braggadocio that causes many of Walt’s problems are an integral part of the reason he’s able to be so successful in the first place.  That confidence when, it wasn’t a hindrance, was a huge asset. Walter White, at a more advanced age than most, changed in his life. While these changes eventually led to his downfall, even his most ardent critics couldn’t say what he did wasn’t impressive or that anybody could do it.

Walt is not an admirable person on the whole, and it’s obviously important to note that.  But biographies are written about controversial and infamous figures because studying people isn’t that easy.  Under all unabashed ego and reprehensible acts are some admirable qualities and I think it’s worth taking a second to point them out.

Breaking Bad and Unpredictability

21 Aug

Bads Will Break

Breaking Bad is a great show for many reasons, but for me, one major lesson the show has taught me is how to properly handle unpredictability on television.

There are two optimal ways to keep a TV show unpredictable.  The first, easier way, is what I call anonymity unpredictably.  Anonymity unpredictability basically involves having a decent sized cast where in everyone is for all intents and purposes completely equal and in a similar position so that anything could happen to any of them at any time.  Examples of this executed correctly are in horror movies when a group of people are being chased by some supernatural enemy, or action or military movies involving squads or teams.  The actors have to be of a roughly equal level of fame; having one or two be more famous will entirely change expectations.  Siberia, currently, for now, airing on NBC, as a fake reality show, is an example of, so far, anyway, well-executed anonymity unpredictability – there’s an equal cast of actors and actresses who aren’t famous, and there’s no reason to have any preconceptions about how will or should survive or make it until the end.  This is hard to sustain over a scripted television series. Actual reality television thrives by way of anonymity unpredictability, though of course, that’s easier when the results are actually not predetermined, and it’s largely this reality show dynamic that anonymity unpredictability in scripted form at its best tries to mimic.

The more difficult second type is what Breaking Bad has mastered, as is what I’ll call predictable unpredictability.  The genius of Breaking Bad is in its realization that the best kind of unpredictability comes not from having no idea what could possibly happen, but from having so many plausible theories of what could happen as to make predicting virtually impossible.

Too many shows result in too predictable unpredictability, which is generally a choice between two outcomes.  24 was often guilty of this. Either he dies or doesn’t. Either the guy and the girl get together, or they don’t.  When push comes to shove, there’s one key binary choice the viewer is anticipating, and you know the result is either A or B.  The show tries to build suspense, build suspense, build suspense, until it’s up against the wall and one of only two things can happen, most often, a character dying or not, or two characters getting together or not.

If it’s not A or B, in one of these situations, it then often what I call unpredictable unpredictability – a twist that comes out of absolutely nowhere and leaves you unsatisfied because the result couldn’t have possibility been anticipated. Generally it’s not even just a slight difference from something you could have put together, but rather something you could never have possibly guessed at (Lost did this a lot).  Sometimes these shows try to trick you into making you think you could have seen it coming but didn’t, and sometimes there’s subtle foreshadowing but it still doesn’t make the twist feel on point.

Breaking Bad eschews both of these approaches.  Instead, it takes the path that a show like Lost would have liked to take, but wasn’t successful at.  It treads carefully, builds its characters, and lays out lots of different potential options, many of which can be used later on in the show as potential plot points, but wouldn’t feel like they were missing if they weren’t.

Breaking Bad made its own large structural mistake by locking itself into the plane crash in season 2, but in the subsequent seasons the events have unfolded in ways that consistently seem both unpredictable but plausible.  At many points in seasons three and four, it didn’t seem clear or obvious which way the show was heading, but rather than seeming like there were only one or two ways out of the corner the story was in, it seemed like there were a world of possibilities.  Even more impressively, in the little moments when there were seemingly binary choices (because it’s nearly impossible to avoid them completely), creator Vince Gilligan used the character motivations and elements of the world he had put together to resolve the situations without them feeling cheap or like cop outs. This is a very difficult line to walk, and Breaking Bad has achieved it better than anyone (Homeland’s first season did a great job, it’s second not as much).  Two great examples of this when Walt and Jesse are trapped in the trailer and Walt decides to have Saul’s assistant call Hank pretending to be the hospital, and the second four finale, when Walt finally kills Gus.  Both of these involves situations, where you probably know what’s going to happen in as much as Walt is not going to get caught that easily at that point in the show, and Walt is not going to die at the end of the fourth season when the show is coming back for a fifth.  Still, these situations work because first, Breaking Bad is surprisingly enough, that there’s always at least a small possibility that the unlikely would happen (I call this the original Law & Order principle – Jack McCoy loses a couple cases each season, just enough to keep the suspense alive for the 90% of cases he’ll win), and because even though the expected happened, they happened in interesting enough ways that both made sense and were non obvious. The plausibility is every bit as important as the surprise.  An implausible surprise is a cheap trick.

Going forward, there are plenty of elements in place for Breaking Bad to play upon, but which it doesn’t have to. Ted, for example.  That’s a card in the deck.  He could come back in some way and play a role, but if he didn’t, the show wouldn’t feel like it was missing something. The cartel could come back in some way and play a role, but if they didn’t that would be fine also.  It’s so much more complicated than this, of course, but just think about what happens to Walt.  It’s not he dies or he doesn’t.  He might die of cancer, he might get shot, he might die with his family knowing, he might die without them.  He might survive and go to jail, he might escape persecution, he might have to live the rest of his life on the run.. That’s just Walt’s very end game.  All of these possibilities are out there, and none of them would by nature feel cheap because Breaking Bad has done such a good job laying the ground work.  Breaking Bad’s spent its seasons wisely, carefully building plausible possibilities.

There are a couple of musts from Breaking Bad; plot points that need to be approached or they would feel unfulfilled (you know, like why the Others made such a big deal about Walt in Lost, which felt like it had to be answered at some point…).  The ricin cigarette, in particular, has been harped on too much to not come up again.

The one failure of unpredictably, if you want to call it that, in Breaking Bad, is the fact that since it’s Walt’s show, Walt probably can’t die until at least the final season.  That’s a limit that all single character led shows have, and it’s a cost that has to be borne to unpredictability if one ever wants to have those shows.

This is the genius of Breaking Bad and it is a lesson for every TV show going forward that gets in trouble trying to surprise and keep viewers guessing; viewers should be able to guess what’s going to happen.  But there should be so many potential guesses that no one knows which one is right.  If the viewers couldn’t have guessed it, you’re probably doing it wrong.

End of Season Report: Breaking Bad, Season 5 – Part 2

9 Aug

Jesse and Walt doing what they do

Part two of my notes on the first half of Season 5 of Breaking Bad.  Part one is here.  Moving forward.

After stating forcefully that he’s unwilling to sell his share of the methylamine even though the potential buyers have told them it’s all or nothing, Walt succeeds in doing nothing but pissing everybody off until he actually comes up with a solution that requires him to do the other thing he does best besides make math;.  His plan is dependent on him bringing his braggadocio to convince someone of something, in this case, convincing the drug dealers that he is the legendary Heisenberg.  What once was a lie, has now become the truth.  While Walter White is a helpless, cancer ridden science teacher, Heisenberg is a master chemist who killed drug dealer extraordinaire Gus Fring.  What started off as an idea, has become a reality.

Walt is incensed when Jesse won’t stay with him in his meth operation, and refuses to give him his share of the money, as he’s resentful of Jesse’s choice to abandon him.  Obviously, Walt is clearly in the wrong here, but it’s just another go around in the complicated father – son type of relationship Walt and Jesse have.  Walt, with Jesse, can be proud about himself in a way he can’t be with his own son, and Walt cares about what Jesse thinks; Jesse’s inability to rationalize the shooting of Drew Sharp is a shot directly across the bow of Walt’s ability to do so.  Even though it’s certainly in Jesse’s best interests to step away from more illegal activity, I think Walt really believes what he’s saying, that this is something Jesse does well, and that this will keep Jesse, who really didn’t have a lot going for him before Walt came around, from using.  The rush of being the best may not have the same appeal for everyone that it does for Walt, but for Walt, that’s what this is all about. In a perverse way, Jesse, like, Walt, was better at cooking meth than anything he had ever done before, and it’s unfortunate there’s no legal way for him to take advantage of that.

At the end of the second to last episode, Walt brings Mike’s go bag to him, and insists that Mike gives him the names of his guys in jail.  Mike, of course, won’t, and Walt, feeling helpness and out of control, clumsily shoots Mike.  It’s an obviously poor choice by Walt, reacting to his lack of control over the situation which Walt can’t deal with, and he realizes it afterwards, though that doesn’t do Mike much good.  Mike, without blaming the victim too much, could have gotten away with his life intact if he didn’t take it upon himself to ream out Walt for everything Walt did to screw up Gus’s operation.  We had a good thing going with Gus, Mike insisted, until you had to go and blow it up.  Of course Walt did not have a good thing going with Gus, at least towards the end when Gus wanted him dead, and it wasn’t actually Walt who screwed it up to begin with, which is hard to remember, but Jesse, when he decided to try to kill a couple of drug dealers who used kids.  Still, Mike just has to rub it in, and while that doesn’t make his death his own fault by any means, he should know Walt well enough by this point to know that he’s temping fate to say the least. Mike who’s so cool, calm, and collected for the vast majority of the series lets his emotions get the best of him here and it leads to his death.

I had forgotten just how much time passes in the final episode of the first half of the fifth season.  Walt enlists Todd’s uncle to kill all of Mike’s henchmen in prison at the same time.  Murder for hire is pretty vicious for certain, and it’s an incredibly brutal series of deaths, but any sympathy I feel for these henchman is nothing compared to what I feel for Drew Sharp, the boy killed by Todd in the desert.  After all, practically, Walt was right.  Without their hazard pay, several of these guys were going to talk, as we saw.  It was a cruel thing to do, but something Gus Fring or any other person in Walt’s boss of a drug operation situation would have agreed necessary to keep on.  Again, that doesn’t make it right or good, but it’s business rather than evil; these people didn’t deserve to die but they were hardly innocents.

Skyler shows Walt all the money that Walt’s acquired, which she’s placed in a storage locker, to point out that for all the money they have, they could never launder it all in a million years.  She’s right, but it’s unclear whether or not it matters to Walt.  Walt is only partly doing it for the money; he’s wants to do something he’s the best at and be the boss.  Still, maybe he sees a way back to his family here, an opening left by Skyler, and he decides, not unwisely, to take it.  Of course, if this was a different series that could be the end – Walt realizes he’s got more than he could ever need, decides to retire, and the family more or less goes back to normal.  In this show, though, at the same time they’re having dinner, as Walt’s retired, and Skyler seems for once to not despise Walt with ever fiber of her being, Hank comes upon a copy of Leaves of Grass in the bathroom, sees it inscribed to “W.W.,” similar to a copy of Leaves of Grass found at Gale’s apartment, and what the W.W. really stood for hits him.

I don’t particularly like the last scene for a couple of reasons.  First, I don’t think Walt would be so careless to leave a gift from Gale lying around in the bathroom.  Second, Hank’s a damn good cop – if he figures out Walt, I’d vastly prefer it to be from a positive act, rather than simply stumbling upon it.  Third, I hate the reminder after Hank sees the “W.W.” that reshows the scene where Hank is trying to figure out what W.W. means; we’re all obsessive Breaking Bad watchers, we either remember the earlier scene or can figure it out.

Every season, I talk about a couple of individual scenes that I adore outside of their context. This season it’s the first scene in Madrigal, where after watching a test of dressings (Franch clearly the best) a Madrigal executive locks himself into the bathroom and kills himself with a defibrillator.  Just beautiful; the clinical science lab, the sharp coloring, the bizarre suicide method. Additionally, I’ve also often said no show does montages better than Breaking Bad, and the final episode’s Crystal Blue Persuasion montage as Walt and Todd make meth is fantastic; it’s as if the show was waiting to use this song for five seasons just for this moment.

For every complaint I make, it’s worth stating that this is Breaking Bad we’re talking about.  Like Mad Men, it’s great, even when it’s not.  Even the weaker moments, are pretty brilliant, and even when I disagree with a choice, I know a ton of thinking and work went into every single decision.  No choice was made willy-nilly or just offhand, or just happened because no one thought about it.  I liked the fifth season more the second time I watched it. Although I’m not sure how the show’s going to end, nor how much impact the ending, for better or worse, will have on my opinion, Breaking Bad is currently one of my five favorite hour long shows of all time.

End of Season Report: Breaking Bad, Season 5 – Part 1

7 Aug

Hey! Bitch! Magnets!

Breaking Bad’s fourth season was a season long one-on-one battle between Walt and Gus, focusing on how Walt deals with utter desperation and ultimately prevails.  The first half of the fifth season is about what happens when Walt wins, and there’s no single enemy to pit himself against.

The season begins with a flash forward to Walt’s 52nd birthday, where he’s eating at a diner under a different name. He purchases a serious weapon from the weapons dealer (played by Jim Beaver) from whom he purchased his gun way back in the second episode of the fourth season.  I don’t often like flash forwards, because I think they usually give away more than they add, and I don’t particularly like this one, but I don’t hate it as much I do some others because it doesn’t either give away far too much or seem like a tease.  Too many flash forwards are gimmicks to make you think one thing is happening, only to show you that you were misled, and this at least doesn’t seem like it exists simply to generate cheap suspense.

Breaking Bad has done a good job of introducing and building a couple of new characters each season, and If season 4 was about expanding the character of Gus, season 5 expands the character of Mike.  Mike despises Walt, seeing all too clearly the traits that are likely to bring about Walt’s downfall; the ego, the arrogance, and the need to be noticed.  Jesse is blinded by his viewing of Walt as a father figure, but Mike isn’t.  Mike wants to kill Walt, threatening to do so in the first episode of the fifth season, and would certainly not want to work with Walt ever again, but the writers know a winning character when they see one, so they not unwisely figure out a way to keep Mike in the show.  The writers find two reasons for Walt to stick around. First, because it’s also in Mike’s interest to figure out a way to destroy Gus’s hard drive, and second, because, in a slight Deus a Mike-ina, he realizes he needs to money to keep Gus’s employees from talking as they’re slowly rounded up and arrested, as the money originally set aside for them is taken by the DEA.  Breaking Bad has excelled throughout its runs in finding ways for certain plot points to happen without making them feel forced, and although we knew nothing about the payoffs Mike was making before this season, the reasoning fits in with all the background information we know.

Mike’s level head continues to provide a contrast to Walt’s fiery ego throughout the season as Mike is reluctantly forced to work with Walt. Naturally, this leads to conflict between Mike and Walt; Walt, as greedy as ever, doesn’t anticipate the extent of the payments coming out of their operation to compensate Mike’s guys and isn’t happy about it.  Walt, the smartest guy in the room, just can’t get it through his thick head how this helps all of them, and as socially stupid as ever, can’t seem to understand the benefit of having a harmonious working relationship at the cost of even a single dollar that’s his.

This is the most caper-happy season, with capers like the magnet ploy of the first episode (obligatory shout out to possibly the best line in Breaking Bad’s history – “Yeah! Bitch! Magnets!”) along with the train robbery, the idea of cooking in the fumigated houses, and to some extent, Walt’s final episode plan to knock off every one of Mike’s guys in prison at the same time.  The train robbery is clearly the capery-ist of these, and while the episode is shot beautifully as always, it seemed a little out of place in Breaking Bad.  They accomplish some incredible feats, and the magnet play fits in line with those, but the train robbery seems one level too far.

Lydia is the new character of the season the way Gus was in the third season and Mike is in the fourth season, though she’s not nearly as interesting as either of those two characters yet, at least.  I wonder if the writers will invest Lydia with more development in the second half of the season, or not want to waste that limited time on her, and merely keep her presence to a minimum.  She seems to serve merely as someone to move the plot along, as she has the list of names of Mike’s guys, she helps Walt and company obtain methylamine, and she spots the barrel that leads the crew to find out the cops are onto them.

My biggest single problem with this season is that Skyler changes her behavior on a dime with no real precedent.  She’s now suicidal and terrified of Walt, and while some of this behavior is justified; I feel like it comes out of nowhere. This is the woman who was okay with lying to the IRS, threatening Ted, and had made her peace, even if unhappily, to launder Walt’s drug money.   It’s not as if it in inherently bothers me even that someone would react that way as much as it does not seem true to character from the Skyler we’ve seen in previous seasons. Utter resignation was never an emotion I got from Skyler, and I couldn’t understand what changed between the end of the fourth season and the beginning of the fifth season that caused her to shift that dramatically.

Train robbery episode Dead Freight presents one of the few instances in which I think Breaking Bad takes a cop out that feels a little bit cheap.  When the little kid sees Walt and Jesse during the train robbery, Todd shoots him before any other member of the crew can issue any instruction.  I think it would have been more difficult and more interesting if Jesse, Mike, and Walt had to figure it out or if one of them had decided to act, but we don’t really know Todd, so his decision has less impact emotionally than Walt, Mike, or Jesse shooting the boy.

With the DEA getting closer, Mike decides things are too hot to continue and Jesse agrees.  Both of them want out, especially when Mike finds someone who will buy the methylamine off them for 5 million each.  Walt, though, wants to continue.  Walt has nothing else in his life at this point.  His wife hates him, as Jesse sees when he stays over Walt’s house for the most awkward dinner of all time, and Skyler does her best to keep his children away from him. Making meth is something he does better than anyone else and he’s finally in the catbird seat after doing it for other scary people.  If he gives this up, he has nothing.  There’s no assurances he’ll ever get his family back at this point.

More notes on the first half of season five coming up on part 2!